Venus wants to eclipse all barriers
Friday, January 11
Venus wants to eclipse all barriers
By Greg Garber
Venus Williams won the two most important Grand Slam singles titles in 2001 -- for the second straight season. She won more money than any other woman ($2.66 million) and finished the year with 16 straight match victories, including two victories each over Lindsay Davenport and Jennifer Capriati. Williams lost only five matches all season and had the best winning percentage (.902).
Last season, Venus Williams didn't even play a warm-up tournament before the Australian Open, but this year she's determined to be No. 1.
So, how did she wind up ranked as the No. 3 player in the world behind Davenport and Capriati? Because, as Martina Hingis knows, the WTA ranking system rewards quantity over quality.
Williams was partially responsible for this turn of events; she didn't play a single(s) match after a rout of sister Serena in the U.S. Open final on Sept. 7. Venus withdrew from two European events after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and missed the year-end tournament in Munich, reportedly with a sore left wrist. Davenport, who did not reach one Grand Slam final in 2001, won three straight tournaments in October alone -- the prestigious Filderstadt, Zurich and Linz -- and then did just enough damage in Munich to pass Capriati for the top ranking by 10 points, the closest race in more than two decades.
All of this seems to have finally inspired Williams to get serious about No. 1, a lofty perch she has never occupied, not even for a cup of coffee. All signs point to a big, big season this year.
She showed up in Australia two weeks before the season's first Slam -- last year she did not play an event before Melbourne -- and won all four of her matches at the Australian Women's Hardcourt championships. The 7-5, 6-2 throttling of Justine Henin, the defending champion and No. 7 in world, required only 73 minutes.
"I've had some disappointing losses at the Australian Open," Williams said afterward, "and I'm tired of swallowing salt."
Which can only mean that opponents better prepare themselves to pound sand. Carlos Rodriguez, Henin's coach, observed that Willams already is in better shape than last season.
"Venus," Rodriguez noted, "proved she is ready to win the Australian Open."
The event opens Monday in Melbourne and Williams has established herself as the clear favorite. With Davenport sidelined with a lingering knee injury, Capriati, Hingis and Serena would seem to be the only others capable of winning. Williams has now won 20 straight matches and dropped only a single set along the way, to Henin last August in the New Haven quarterfinals. That's one set in more than four months.
The memory of last year's curiously listless 6-1, 6-1 loss to Hingis in the Aussie semifinals adds further motivation for Williams, who has never even reached the finals there.
"At the beginning of the week I was hoping to play four matches, which is what I got," Williams said after her finals victory last week. "So it's been good."
Which can only be bad news for the rest of the field.
Sometimes, amid all the histrionics and intrigue, it's easy to forget that Venus Ebone Starr Williams is only 21 years old -- the equivalent of a college junior.
“ The times I've played in Sydney it's so fast-paced and there are so many top players, you don't feel like you get a chance to settle in. I feel like I had the opportunity to take my time this week. ”
— Venus Williams
While Richard Williams, her father, remains something of a cartoon character and Serena has displayed some alarming moments of immaturity, Venus is starting to distance herself from the pathos and chaos. She still can be a little spacey in her post-match interviews and, yes, she's still pursuing a degree in fashion design, but this fact remains: Venus has won four of the past six Grand Slam titles. By comparison, six different men have won the last six Slams.
Perhaps that's why Williams was the only tennis player on the recently released Sporting News Power 100 for 2001. She was No. 77, ahead of Shaquille O'Neal (No. 84), among others. Her $40 million Reebok endorsement deal is said to be the largest ever for a female athlete. Now, it appears Reebok may begin to collect on that investment.
Williams signaled a new approach a few months ago at home in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., when she "called" the Australian Women's Hardcourt tournament, in lieu of the Sydney tournament, her usual venue. Because Venus and Serena don't play in the same event unless there is a major title on the line, that meant that Serena, forever the younger sister, was dispatched to Sydney.
Venus felt the Adidas International field was too strong for her only warm-up event.
"The times I've played in Sydney it's so fast-paced and there are so many top players, you don't feel like you get a chance to settle in," she explained. "I feel like I had the opportunity to take my time this week."
Williams methodically tightened up her game as the opponents got tougher. After banging nine double-faults in a quarterfinal victory over Ai Sugiyama, she said, "I don't have to hit the double-faults I was hitting today. By the time I get to Melbourne, I won't be."
Actually, the correction occurred faster than that; Williams had only one double fault in the finals victory over Henin. And so, while Serena worked her way through the Sydney event, Venus practiced without any pressure. She should be fresh for Melbourne.
Something to prove
Certainly, Davenport's absence opens up the draw. The right knee injury dogged Davenport most of last year and forced her out of the year-end finals in Munich. After nearly two months off, Davenport re-injured the knee and will miss the Australian Open, which she won in 2000, for the first time in her career. Cartilage damage may require surgery and keep her out of action for some time.
Venus Williams consoled Serena after defeating her younger sister in the semifinals at Wimbledon 2000.
Thus, Capriati will be seeded No. 1 in Melbourne and take over the world's top ranking. She won last week's Hong Kong Ladies Challenge, defeating Elena Dementieva 1-6, 6-4, 6-4 in the final.
"I think I am in better form than I was at this time last year," Capriati said. "I think I am in better shape for the Australian Open, and that's my goal. It's a task, and it's an exciting challenge. I have more experience going into Australia. I feel confident."
That confidence may have been shaken this past Wednesday when Capriati lost her opening match in Sydney to Alexandra Stephenson 7-6 (5), 3-6, 6-4. Capriati left the court for 10 minutes during the third set to receive treatment for a leg injury.
Capriati was the comeback story of the year in sports in 2001, winning the Australian Open and French Open after a dark period away from tennis. In fact, Capriati, 25, was selected the 2001 female athlete of the year by both Reuters and The Associated Press.
Still, the defining match of year in women's tennis probably was her 6-4, 6-2 loss to Williams in the U.S. Open semifinals. It underlined the ascent of Venus and a modest decline by Capriati, a reversal of fortunes that, if it continues, may not impact the rankings until the summer.
"I have had some good results against her, and most of them have been very close," Williams said last week. "But she's gained a lot of respect in the past year. I think it's been great for American tennis, her coming back like she has. Since she came out at 14, everyone loved her from the beginning. I used to watch her -- I loved her, too."
Hingis, too, has something to prove. She was the No. 1 player three of the previous four years before sliding to No. 4 in 2001. Hingis tore three ligaments in her right ankle in Germany and missed the year-end tournament. That ended her 73-week run as the No. 1 player, a prospect that doubtlessly will motivate the Swiss player. That, and the fact she is winless in her past 11 Grand Slams matches, dating to her 1999 Australian title.
Between last April 2 and July 29, Williams was the world's No. 2 ranked player. It was her highest ranking to date, but she dropped back to No. 3 and finished the year there for the third consecutive season.
This, year, if the early returns are any indication, No. 3 -- or even No. 2 -- may not be enough.
Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com